Kurdish officials this fall took delivery of three planeloads of small arms and ammunition imported from Bulgaria, three U.S. military officials said, an acquisition that occurred outside the weapons procurement procedures of Iraq's central government.
The large quantity of weapons and the timing of the shipment alarmed U.S. officials, who have grown concerned about the prospect of an armed confrontation between Iraqi Kurds and the government at a time when the Kurds are attempting to expand their control over parts of northern Iraq.
The weapons arrived in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah in September on three C-130 cargo planes, according to the three officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
Kurdish officials declined to answer questions about the shipments but released the following statement: "The Kurdistan Regional Government continues to be on the forefront of the war on terrorism in Iraq. With that continued threat, nothing in the constitution prevents the KRG from obtaining defense materials for its regional defense."
Iraq's ethnic Kurds maintain an autonomous region that comprises three of the country's 18 provinces. In recent months, the Shiite-led central government in Baghdad, which includes some Kurds in prominent positions, has accused Kurdish leaders of attempting to expand their territory by deploying their militia, known as pesh merga, to areas south of the autonomous region. Among other things, the Kurds and Iraq's government are at odds over control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which lies outside the autonomous region, and over how Iraq's oil revenue ought to be distributed.
The Kurds of northern Iraq have run their affairs with increasing autonomy since 1991, when U.S. and British forces began enforcing a no-fly zone in northern Iraq to protect the region from President Saddam Hussein's military. The U.S.-led invasion in 2003 sparked concern that Iraqi Kurds would seek independence, but the Kurds have insisted that they wish to remain part of a federal Iraq.
Neighboring countries with large Kurdish minorities, including Turkey and Iran, have said they would oppose the emergence of an independent Kurdistan, as the autonomous region is known.
Iraq's interior minister, Jawad al-Bolani, said in an interview that central government officials did not authorize the purchase of weapons from Bulgaria. He said such an acquisition would constitute a "violation" of Iraqi law because only the Ministries of Interior and Defense are authorized to import weapons.
Experts on Iraq's constitution said the document does not clearly say whether provincial officials have the authority to import weapons. However, Iraqi and U.S. officials said the Ministries of Interior and Defense are the only entities authorized to import weapons. The Defense Ministry provides weapons to the Iraqi army, and the Interior Ministry procures arms for the country's police forces.
The Iraqi government has acquired the vast majority of its weapons through the Foreign Military Sales program, a U.S.-run procurement system, Brig. Gen. Charles D. Luckey, who assists the Iraqi government with weapons purchases, said Saturday. He said he knew of no instances in which provincial authorities had independently purchased weapons from abroad.
With thousands of American military officials involved in the training of Iraq's security forces, there is little the U.S. government does not know about weapons that are legally imported to Iraq. The shipments from Bulgaria in September caught the American military off guard, the three officials said. They first learned of the shipments from a source in Bulgaria, the officials said.
The three said they did not know whether U.S. officials had confronted Kurdish leaders about the shipments or alerted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.
"Yes, the Kurds have this autonomous region and they're authorized to keep the pesh," one of the officials said, referring to the militia. "But arming themselves and bringing in weapons stealthily like that -- if I were the Iraqi government, I'd be pretty concerned."
While violence in Iraq has decreased markedly in recent months, political tension is rising as Iraqi leaders gear up for provincial and national elections scheduled to take place next year, and as they prepare for an era in which the U.S. military will have a smaller presence there.
Of the primary fault lines -- which include tension between Sunnis and Shiites and rivalry among Shiite political parties -- the rift between Kurds and the Arab-dominated Iraqi government has become a top concern in recent months. Senior government officials have engaged in a war of words, and Iraqi army and pesh merga units have come close to clashing.
"You could easily have a huge eruption of violence in the north," said Kenneth B. Katzman, a Middle East specialist at the Congressional Research Service in Washington. "Nothing having to do with the Kurds is resolved."
Because Arab Sunnis largely boycotted the 2005 election, Kurds obtained disproportionate political power in key provinces such as Tamim, which includes Kirkuk, and Nineveh. Both abut the Kurdish autonomous region. Kurds also control 75 of the 275 seats in parliament.
This year, violence broke out in Kirkuk amid political squabbling over an Arab proposal that seats on the Tamim provincial council should be divided evenly among ethnic Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens. In the end, Iraqi lawmakers had to shelve plans to hold provincial elections in Tamim because the sides were unable to reach a deal.
In August, U.S. officials narrowly averted an armed confrontation between an Iraqi army unit and pesh merga fighters in the town of Khanaqin, in Diyala province.
Maliki 'playing with fire'
In recent weeks, Maliki and Kurdish leaders have exchanged sharp words over Maliki's creation of so-called support councils. Maliki has said the councils, which are made up of pro-government tribal leaders, are the central government's eyes and ears in provinces. But Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani and other Iraqi leaders have accused the prime minister of using the councils to bolster Maliki's influence in areas where he has little political support. In a recent news conference, Barzani said Maliki was "playing with fire."
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is a Kurd, recently sent Maliki a letter saying the money being spent on councils should go to the country's armed forces.
The pesh merga, which began as a militia controlled by powerful Kurdish families, fought Iraqi troops when Hussein was in power. Since the 2003 invasion, its primary role has been to patrol predominantly Kurdish areas in the north. However, pesh merga units were deployed to the northern city of Mosul in 2004 to help quell an insurgent uprising, and others were dispatched to Baghdad as part of the 2007 buildup of U.S. troops.
Recently, the Iraqi government has refrained from using pesh merga forces outside of the Kurdish region and has taken steps to replace predominantly Kurdish forces with Sunni and Shiite soldiers in Nineveh, one of the most violent areas in Iraq.
Central government officials recently bristled at Barzani's offer to allow U.S. troops to establish bases in the Kurdish autonomous region, saying the regional government had no authority to make such an overture, especially as Iraqi officials are calling for a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops.
"There is a lot of tension," Kurdish parliament member Mahmoud Othman said. "Maliki and his administration are accusing the Kurdish authorities of violating the constitution. And the Kurds are accusing Maliki of violating the constitution."